Now that Churchill Downs stewards have determined that Jose Santos did not use an illegal device while guiding Funny Cide to victory in the 129th Kentucky Derby, unless Funny Cide wins Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes on June 7 will generate as much interest as the return of Disco.
A victory by Funny Cide in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown would keep alive faint hope that the New York-bred gelding could become the 12th Triple Crown winner. But, a defeat in the 13/16 Preakness would make him as forgettable as an Adam Sandler movie.
The consensus of opinion from random trainers is that Funny Cide will not win the Preakness, thereby leaving the racing cognoscenti thirsting again for a Triple Crown winner.
And at least one trainer said Empire Maker, the 5-2 Derby favorite that was beaten 13/4 lengths by Funny Cide and finished a head in front of stablemate Peace Rules, could have won the Run for the Roses, had tactics been different.
"I just think (Bobby) Frankel underestimated the competition," trainer Barry Abrams said. "He thought Empire Maker could win easy and wanted to make sure he was fresh for the Triple Crown, so he didn’t train him as hard as he could have. He figured Funny Cide was the horse to beat and he already beat him (by a deceiving half-length in the Wood). But Funny Cide ran better in the Derby than he did in the Wood and Empire Maker might have run the same race or a little bit worse. That’s what I think happened. Walking instead of galloping a couple days before the race because of the bruised foot didn’t beat Empire Maker.
"If I had been training him, I would have done the same thing. If you tell me before the Derby that Funny Cide is the horse to beat, I know I can beat him without even training Empire Maker, because I already beat him, so why should I train him any harder?
"I thought Empire Maker ran a great race in the Wood. It looked like he was going to win by three or four lengths. But Empire Maker ran as good as he could to beat Funny Cide, because Funny Cide was coming back on. Empire Maker wasn’t drawing away. If Funny Cide had the lead in mid-stretch, Empire Maker might not have passed him, but as soon as he did, Funny Cide never quit."
As for Funny Cide winning the Preakness, Abrams was on the fence. "He’s a good horse," Abrams said. "He finished second and third to both of Frankel’s horses and he’s got good tactical speed, so he should run well right back in the Preakness. I don’t think he won the Derby so much because he was the best horse; he just won because he was good on that day."
Craig Lewis, who conditioned popular stakes winners Cutlass Reality and Larry The Legend, does not fancy Funny Cide’s Triple Crown chances.
"I think it’s possible, but unlikely," the trainer said. "The odds, percentages, history and the way the competition shapes up all are against him. He’s obviously a nice horse, but everything went his way (in the Derby) and he did what he had to, but it’s pretty tough to win three in a row. I wasn’t surprised at all that he won the Derby. I wouldn’t have been surprised if five or six horses had won. It’s easy to say afterwards that I thought Funny Cide could win, but it was that kind of race, wide open. I like Peace Rules to win the Preakness. He’s got great tactical speed and it looks like he’ll be well-suited for the race. He ran a very good race in the Derby, as good as anybody."
Veteran horseman George Williams was firm in his feeling that Funny Cide would not win the Triple Crown.
"He can’t win the Triple Crown, no way," the 75-year-old trainer said. "Like Barry said, Frankel short-changed Empire Maker. He thought he’d just go in there and win. He trained Empire Maker differently than I’ve seen him train horses. He trained him awfully light and was jogging him an awful lot, and that’s basically not what you do to get a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby, to go a mile and a quarter."
Jeff Mullins, who saddled Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil to a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, had a different take on why Empire Maker lost.
"I don’t think you can base the outcome of the Derby on anything," Mullins said. "If you get a good trip and you’ve got a horse underneath you, you’re going to win. If you’ve got a good horse and you get a (crap) trip, you’re not going to win. When you’re in a race with 16 horses, you’ve got to get a good trip. If you don’t, you’re not going to win, I don’t care if you’ve got the best horse."
Asked if he thought Empire Maker got a good trip, Mullins deferred. "I didn’t watch Empire Maker," he said. "I was watching my own horse. I haven’t seen the replays, so I couldn’t tell you. My horse got a (crap) trip. He was eliminated from the start. We were proud that he ran sixth."
Buddy Gil, like Funny Cide a gelding, recently had a chip in his ankle removed but likely would have run in the Preakness with the chip, had he won the Derby. "If we’d have won the Kentucky Derby, sure, we’d have gone on, just to try and win the Triple Crown, even with his chips," Mullins said. "Ninety percent of horses run with chips, but with colts, the goal is to win one of those big (Triple Crown) races and make the horse worth more in the breeding shed. Our horse can’t go to the breeding shed., so he’ll be out for two months. We’ve got plenty of time. He’s a gelding but there’s no reason to beat him up. Look at Kona Gold and John Henry."
Kona Gold, still racing at age nine, was the Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion in 2000, and John Henry was 1984 Horse of the Year at age nine. Both are geldings.
Maybe Funny Cide will join them, even if he wins the Triple Crown. After all, he has no options.
THE HOMESTRETCH: We were first in the nation with this news you can bet on, which appeared in the Jan. 28-Feb. 3 editions of GamingToday: "Look for another turf monster in the not-too-distant future from the Neil Drysdale barn in Storming Home, an English-bred son of Machiavellian presently cantering at Hollywood Park. The 5-year-old horse finished 15th in the Japan Cup last Nov. 24, but is expected to embellish his overall record of 5-4-3 from 19 starts when he surfaces in the United States." Storming Home finally "surfaced" in the 1Â½-mile Jim Murray Memorial Handicap on Saturday, winning his U.S. debut by two lengths and returning $7.60 as the third choice.